On False Apology in Writing

February 11, 2023 § Leave a comment

There’s been conversation on Twitter over the past week about this essay by Ottessa Moshfegh that appeared on The Paris Review blog for its Home Improvements series. She talks about her father buying her a once-foreclosed house in Providence for a paltry sum; it is soaked with the stench of cigarette smoke, “a layer of nicotine varnish that made everything sepia and gross” and renders the place uninhabitable. She tears the walls apart to get rid of the smell. Then the previous owner—the one who defaulted on his mortgage—shows up, lights a cigarette, and looks around without saying hello before he starts to cry.

Those who take issue with the piece criticize it as “poverty porn,” a writer using one stranger’s unfortunate circumstances as a subject for art. There’s been a greater regard of late for how people of limited means are portrayed, a concern with turning them into conceits. The sentences that surround the man’s breakdown don’t reach for sentiment: “It was horrible. It was heartbreaking. It was so bad. I looked at my dad. He made no expression. There was nothing to say or to do.”

The essay also contains a lot of the gaze that I have come to expect from Moshfegh, eager to make us look at the dirt, almost to the point of fetishizing warts. When she writes about her next-door neighbor, “an elderly lady from Portugal who spoke almost no English and yet complained to me about all the dogshit in my backyard while bragging about the tomatoes in her garden, which looked exactly like her breasts beneath her housedress, heavy and sliding,” it seems a needless reach, a gleeful slander at someone who doesn’t have the means or eloquence to speak for herself.  

Defenders seem to appreciate the essay’s honesty. Moshfegh never hides that she is writing from a place of privilege, and doesn’t level to a false apology. She actually says sorry to the man in the end, and you wonder if it’s a sorry of regret, or sympathy, or embarrassment. There’s no reason it can’t be a mix of all three.

I have never cared for where Moshfegh’s lens looks in her fiction—there seems to be a spitefulness in how she turns subjects over to inspect their patheticness—but there’s an additional, ethical angle at play when the work is nonfiction and the characters are real. The writer has a responsibility not to embarrass their subject, and in particular not to use their advantages to do so. It seems that much of the objection to the essay is seated in a feeling that Moshfegh has abdicated that responsibility.

I’m not sure I share that sentiment—the author seems to make quite clear that she is aware of where she comes from and knows how she is making out at the expense of another person. She even shares the amount her father paid for the house. Perhaps the unfairness being scrutinized is not about money and class power but about writing itself. The ability to tell a story and put it into words is one that not everyone has. Very few people have the real chance to get published in The Paris Review. Are we always wrong to use that privilege to claim the sad moments in the lives of less-writerly people for our art? Was Moshfegh’s language not gentle enough to make this move? That’s a fair criticism, but one, I think, more about style than circumstance.

To me it feels that the privilege of writing doesn’t invite us to cast our lenses downward, but that downward cast is often unavoidable. We are casting a film when we write, deciding who is worthy of mention and who is not. We decide what quotes to write down. We make permanent the decisions of others. That kind of privilege is gigantic and so inherent to the practice of writing that I don’t see how it can be removed. To be a writer and pretend you are on the same plane as your subject is worse, an act of condescension, of cruelty.


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